The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, approved by voice vote, had triggered a threat from Riyadh to pull billions of dollars from the US economy if the bill is enacted.
The legislation, sponsored by senators John Cornyn and Chuck Schumer, gives victims’ families the right to sue in US court for any role that elements of the Saudi government may have played in the 2001 attacks.
The house still must act on the legislation. Relatives of the victims have urged the Obama administration to declassify and release US intelligence that allegedly discusses possible Saudi involvement in the attacks.
Saudi foreign minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir denied earlier this month that the kingdom made any threats over the bill. He said Riyadh had warned investor confidence in the US would shrink if the bill became law.
“In fact what they [congress] are doing is stripping the principle of sovereign immunities, which would turn the world for international law into the law of the jungle,” Al-Jubeir said in a May 3 statement.
Passage of the bill sends the message that the US “will combat terrorism with every tool we have available, and that the victims of terrorist attacks in our country should have every means at their disposal to seek justice,” Cornyn said.
Schumer said that any foreign government that aids terrorists who strike the US “will pay a price if it is proven they have done so”.
Senate Democrats had firmly supported the legislation, putting them at odds with the Obama administration.
The White House has said the bill could expose Americans overseas to legal risks, and spokesman Josh Earnest said efforts to revise the legislation fell short in addressing the administration’s concerns about preserving sovereign immunity.
“Given the concerns that we’ve expressed, it’s difficult to imagine the president signing this legislation,” Earnest told reporters.
Schumer was confident the senate had the necessary two-thirds vote of the chamber to override a presidential veto.
“We don’t think their arguments stand up,” the New York lawmaker said at a news conference.
Senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the senate subcommittee that controls foreign aid, had blocked the bill from moving to the senate floor until changes were made to ensure the legislation didn’t backfire on the US.
Graham’s apprehension was rooted in the possibility a foreign country could sue the US if the door is opened for US citizens to take the Saudis to court.